Indictment should be start of cyber school reform
When a federal grand jury issued an indictment last week against the founder of Pennsylvania's largest publicly funded charter school, it also, in effect, indicted the Pennsylvania Legislature for ignoring charter school funding reform for years.
Nicholas Trombetta, founder and former CEO of the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, was charged in federal court with 11 counts of fraud and tax law violations. During the period from 2006 to 2012 covered by the indictment, Mr. Trombetta allegedly skimmed about $1 million in taxpayer funds paid to the cyber school as tuition, through a complex series of transactions using companies Mr. Trombetta created. And, the indictment said, a total of $8 million was funneled through a separate company for tax purposes.
The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, from which Mr. Trombetta resigned last year, was not named in the indictment.
Charter schools, including those that operate over the Internet rather than in actual buildings, are public schools funded by taxpayers. Home districts of enrolled students pay tuition to charter schools based on their own cost-per-student, rather than on the charter school's actual costs.
In the case of an Internet-based school, those actual costs are substantially lower than for a school with costs such as physical facilities and transportation.
Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School alone had more than 10,000 students and more than $100 million in revenue in 2012.
Public schools statewide have complained, justly, since the start of the charter school movement in the state in 1997 that charter schools should be paid based on their actual costs.
Former Auditor General Jack Wagner detailed the inconsistency and inherent lack of fairness in the system with a series of reports.
And, some legislators long have called for sweeping change.
Expressing satisfaction with the Trombetta indictment, Republican former state Rep. Karen Beyer said "the taxpayers had an opportunity and the Legislature had an opportunity with that cyber bill to control this years ago, and they failed to act and now we're seeing the results of that."
Since then the Legislature has dealt around the edges of the charter funding issue. The indictment should be a catalyst for comprehensive reform.